Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Helen Golay And Olga Rutterschmidt: Black Widows

Hit and Run

On June 22, 2005, a car crept through an alley off Westwood Boulevard in West Los Angeles. The time was shortly after midnight on a Wednesday. Not a lot of people would be out.

The driver slowed to a stop. Then someone got out and pulled an inebriated Kenneth McDavid, 50, from the car and laid him in the alley. With a blood alcohol count of .08 percent combined with the influence of a few prescription painkillers and sleeping pills, McDavid wasn't in any condition to be walking.

The car backed up, and then the driver slowly ran over McDavid, as if to inflict the greatest possible injury. In fact, the car was going so slow that the McDavid's glasses remained on his head, splattered with grease. An autopsy report would later reveal that he had a "flattened chest" with three broken ribs, a fractured spine, and abrasions consistent with being dragged several feet. A tire imprint was left on his jeans.

McDavid was listed on the coroner's report as "transient." No witnesses were located, so the case became just another tragic hit and run. The investigating officer from Los Angeles Police Department's Traffic Division had little to go on and the case languished for about seven months. Until, one morning, he was in the squad room and mentioned to another officer how unusual it was to have two women ask for the police report on a transient hit-and-run who weren't even related to the victim.

Another investigator overheard the conversation and interjected, "I had a case like that six years ago."

Not a Mere Coincidence

As the second detective told it, sometime in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 1999, an elderly man drew his last breath in an alley near West Hollywood. Someone had run him over with a car and left the scene without stopping. The victim was homeless and carried no identification, so it seemed like just another tragic accident for a John Doe in the City of Angels.

Eventually the man was identified as Paul Vados, 73, but no leads were forthcoming on his death. The two detectives quickly compared notes and were astounded to discover that the same two women had claimed both bodies. Nor could the detectives find any proof that the women were, indeed, related to the decedents.

"It was somewhat unusual that two elderly ladies unrelated to the victim were coming in and making requests for police reports, attempting to gain custody of the body and claiming there was no one else in the world who cared about this poor soul," LAPD Detective Dennis Kilcoyne later told the Los Angeles Times.

The women - Olga Rutterschmidt, 73, of Hollywood and Helen Golay, 75, of Santa Monica - were longtime friends. Further investigation revealed that the women had taken out more than a dozen life insurance policies on the two men and, after they had died, had filed claims worth more than $4 million. So far, the insurance companies had paid out $2.2 million. A few companies suspected the women of murder and balked at paying. The women promptly began legal proceedings to collect.

Rutterschmidt and Golay may have had a motive for killing the men, but finding proof of murder was something else.

Who Were Rutterschmidt and Golay?

The next step was to look at Rutterschmidt and Golay. Both unmarried, they seemed to enjoy getting dressed up and going places where men were plentiful: health clubs, churches and nights on the town. Golay was a real estate broker, owned several pieces of property and lived in a house worth $1.5 million. She drove a Mercedes SUV and kept up her looks with plastic surgery. Rutterschmidt was significantly less well off, living in a small apartment, driving a Honda Civic and having no apparent source of income other than as a scout for Golay's real estate ventures.

It's not clear how they met, although their friendship apparently went back many years. And they were something to look at. With bleached blonde hair, loads of eyeliner and bright lipstick, and flashy clothes, the women were a poor man's version of the Gabor sisters.

So it seemed strange that this pair would go out of their way to gain the trust of homeless men, then put them up in low-rent apartments, help them with errands, and give financial advice. In exchange, the men signed life insurance policies naming the women as beneficiaries.

Suspiciously, the men died after two years of living under this arrangement. Under California law, it's extremely difficult for insurance companies to contest life insurance policy benefits after a two-year period.

After both men died, the women filed claims as the only next of kin. In Vados' case, he did have a living relative — a daughter named Stella who had been estranged from her father for several years. When she learned of his death, she fought an uphill battle to get the remains moved to a family plot and to collect some of the life insurance money.

The Investigation

Detectives were certain that the women committed both murders. They began to follow Rutterschmidt and Golay as they went about their daily lives. Then one day investigators observed another victim apparently being groomed for murder. Detectives watched as Rutterschmidt pulled her car up to a curb and begin talking to an elderly man who was out for a walk. The pair had apparently met before, and the man got into her car.

They drove to a bank and went inside. Detectives followed and watched as Rutterschmidt and the man approached a teller's window. On the way out, Rutterschmidt threw some papers into a trashcan that were retrieved by detectives. They were return reply envelopes to a life insurance company and a bank. Later that day Rutterschmidt was followed to a copy shop where she logged onto the Internet and attempted to open a credit card account under someone else's name.

It now seemed to detectives that Rutterschmidt and Golay intended to murder the old man in the same manner as Vados and McDavid. No doubt about it — the women were dangerous and needed to be in jail, police decided. The murder investigation wasn't finished, but detectives did have enough for mail fraud charges in connection with the life insurance policies.

On May 19, 2006, Rutterschmidt and Golay were charged with eight counts of mail fraud. It was sensational news — two old ladies who could have been at home knitting booties or reading mystery novels were instead themselves plotting the deaths of unsuspecting men. It wasn't long before the media was referring to the pair as the "hit and run grannies" or the "black widows." But unlike their counterparts in the movie Arsenic and Old Lace, these two were not suffering from dementia — they were ruthless killers, police said.

Detectives searched their homes and found more than eight rubber stamps bearing the signatures of various men, including McDavid. It seemed that the men would sign off on one life insurance policy, and the women then used the signatures to obtain stamps that would allow them to apply for additional policies without the men's knowledge.

But the best clue of all came from Golay herself. It seems that someone identifying herself as Helen Golay called a towing service a block from where McDavid had been struck and killed. The call came in an hour before his body was found. The car in question, a 1999 Mercury Sable station wagon, had front-end damage and was towed to a street near Rutterschmidt's home.

Nailing Down the Evidence

Police tracked down the Mercury Sable. It had been impounded after receiving numerous parking tickets and was eventually resold when no one came to claim it. Criminalists verified that it did sustain front-end damage and something far more important - blood on the undercarriage. A DNA test was run against McDavid and came back a match.

At the time of the accident, the Mercury Sable was registered to an Encino woman whose name was found by police on a piece of paper when they searched Golay's car. Detectives later determined that the Encino woman had been a victim of identity theft and never owned the car.

The women were held without bail in a federal jail and lost a motion to be released on bail. A judge ruled that they should remain incarcerated because prosecutors had shown probable cause that the pair had committed murder.

Shortly after, on July 31, 2006, Rutterschmidt and Golay were charged with two counts of murder and the special circumstances of murder for financial gain and multiple murder. This meant that they were eligible for the death penalty. They were also charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit murder for financial gain.

The criminal complaint alleged that Golay had collected $348,000 from Vados' life insurance policies and $1.5 million from McDavid's; while Rutterschmidt had collected $246,000 and $674,000 respectively.

In light of the murder charges, the U.S. Attorney's Office dismissed the fraud case. They retained the option of refiling it at another time if the women were acquitted of murder.

The Preliminary Hearing

In March 2007, the women underwent a four-day preliminary hearing in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. Gone were the flashy clothes, excessive makeup and bleached blonde hair. Instead, two weary-looking elderly women sat at the counsel table with their natural dark hair. They looked every day of their 70-plus years.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Shellie Samuels had no sympathy. She said the victims likely suffered a slow painful death if they had been awake when the car ran over them.

The women had a systematic plan of housing, feeding and clothing the men for two years, waiting for the period to pass when insurance companies could contest the policy. "It was a huge investment," Samuels said, adding that the women were too old to wait for the men to die naturally. "The only way for the fraud to pay off is to kill these victims."

In all, Vados had been covered by more than 12 policies and McDavid, 23 policies, Samuels said.

Other witnesses included Hilary Adler, who testified that her purse had been stolen from a Santa Monica health club in 2003. Her identification had then been used to buy the Mercury Sable. Police later found a copy of her driver's license in Rutterschmidt's home.

A DNA expert also testified that the blood evidence found on the Mercury Sable was McDavid's with such certainty that for it to belong to someone else was a 1-in-10 quadrillion chance.

The case appeared strong enough to go to trial. When the judge told the women that they'd be facing a jury, Golay remained stoic and Rutterschmidt looked like she was going to cry.

The Trial

On Oct. 24, 2007, prosecutors decided that they would not seek the death penalty against the duo, citing their ages. It was the last hurdle that remained before going to trial.

Then, finally, a jury was seated and opening statements were heard on March 18, 2008. Journalists packed the Los Angeles courtroom to see the drama that had made news around the world continue to unfold. Part of the fascination was seeing how these women had fared in jail. Gone were the bleached blonde hairdos, bright red lips, manicured nails and short skirts. Instead, two women aged 77 and 75 sat at the counsel table wearing demure black pantsuits, no makeup and long gray hair that was worn straight without the benefit of hot rollers and tons of hairspray.

"They waited for two years, with murder on their minds each of those days," Deputy District Attorney Truc Do told the jury.

The prosecutor took the jury through a PowerPoint presentation showing the insurance paper trail and then a bombshell: a videotaped conversation secretly recorded between the two women while they were in jail. The pair argued over their predicament, with Rutterschmidt complaining that Golay had caused the situation by taking out too many insurance policies.

Despite this, defense attorneys have said they will vindicate their clients. The trial is estimated to last a month. If convicted, the Rutterschmidt and Golay could be sentenced to a lifetime in prison without any hope of parole, seeing a hairstylist, Bloomingdale's fall sale, or plastic surgeon.


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